Synopsis – In the fall of 1976, a small psychology lab in Pennsylvania became the unwitting home to the only government-confirmed case of possession. The U.S. military assumed control of the lab under orders of national security and, soon after, implemented measures aimed at weaponizing the entity. The details of the inexplicable events that occurred are being made public after remaining classified for nearly forty years.
My Take – The premise of this found footage/ horror/ mockumentary is a very promising one. Set in the mid 70’s, it’s about a group of scientists led by Dr. Henry West (William Mapother) who perform a series of paranormal experiments on subjects who purportedly have psychic abilities. Many of his subjects turn out to be frauds (magnets in the watch!) until along comes Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt). Judith is the real deal. She displays some abilities the staff describe as “godlike” that violate the laws of physics. As her powers get progressively more gnarly, Dr. West and his crew are “too excited to be scared.”
They call in people from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency for help, but all the government is interested in is harnessing Judith’s powers for military purposes and things go increasingly badly wrong. This film is basically a reviewing of archived Psychic experiments that went horribly wrong, but it is done so well at times you think its real, you can tell the budget was not huge but it didn’t matter because they used it wisely almost to the point of brilliantly, so the story unfolds as an interview type documentary on several scientists while showing the archived videos of the experiments, a bunch of Psychic researchers do simple experiments on hundreds of subjects with little to no real definitive results, they are almost at the end of their funding when a woman walks in and volunteers for testing, she is barely coherent at times but in that very 1st day she proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Psychic abilities are real, in the process of showing the videos and talking about the events, they show the real Black and White videos of the Russian woman that proved she could move small objects with her mind (these video clips are real not part of the movie videos), but this woman that they are testing now is beyond any subject that has ever been tested, suffice to say, things turn from bad to worse real quick, there is real tension throughout the film. The film-makers have taken some care to present this in a manner that replicates an actual documentary. To this end we have lots of talking heads footage involving people who were connected to the story and there is also retro looking filmed material as well as stills. It would only be fair to say that the execution of the whole thing is less than the actual ideas. Despite its craftsmanship and an interesting premise, the film is ultimately a bore.
The period it’s set in is during a time when there was a popular interest in things like ESP and psychokinesis. There’s nothing in the film we haven’t seen before and none of the scary moments are effective. There are some neat little subtle tricks when Judith uses her powers early on (a card bends, a chair moves), but nothing particularly remarkable happens during the tests. It is very well put together and does a fine job mimicking an actual documentary, but overall there’s nothing entertaining or engaging about it. No tension is ever built up and many of the scenes that try to be scary are first introduced by a talking head saying something like, “That one night in the lab…it was crazy.” Then we see what happens and it’s all very anticlimactic. It’s all very tedious. It’s pretty low budget and this accounts for some mediocre acting, while the script was a little clunky in places. The biggest problem though is that it all gets a bit samey and one-note after a while with little variation in events. Writer/Director Chris Sparling understands an entire film can’t be built on VHS-quality pictures alone – despite being a sneaky advantage that hides outdated special effects – but scares are still hard to come by thanks to speedy camera-swapping whenever tension mounts at its highest peak, making the film an easy, breezy, but out-of-date spook fest. On the whole, ‘The Atticus Institute’ gets points for trying to do something interesting but ultimately fails in every other department.
Director – Chris Sparling
Rated – R
Run Time – 92 minutes